How to Believe in Magic: A Conversation with Jenny Sadre-Orafai


Jenny Sadre-Orafai is the author of Malak, Paper, Cotton, Leather, and five chapbooks. Her poetry has appeared in Cream City Review, Ninth Letter, The Cortland Review, Hotel Amerika, The Pinch, and other journals. Her prose has appeared in Los Angeles Review, The Rumpus, South Loop Review, Fourteen Hills, The Collagist, and other journals. She is co-founding editor of Josephine Quarterly and an Associate Professor of English at Kennesaw State University.

Tell Tell’s Tim Lynch talks with poet Jenny Sadre-Orafai about her second full-length collection, Malak (Platypus Press, 2017), and what it means to document the supernatural and the suppressed as they manifest in language and less articulable ways.


Tim Lynch: I’m really excited to talk with you. I fucking love this book.

Jenny Sadre-Orafai: You’re so nice. Thank you.

TL: It’s very good. So how did the book project start for you?

JS: I think that it was just this idea of documenting all the supernatural that was going on in my life around my grandmother, strange things that I didn’t really piece together until they started happening to me, like poltergeist activity. Just looking at my grandmother and her gift for reading people’s futures from a different viewpoint, because it was so normal to me. It was something that I always knew she did. So it’s just a documenting, and it’s almost a case, proof that the supernatural exists—that people can hallucinate animals, that crystals can help people—and it kind of grew out of that.

TL: Yeah there’s definitely evidence we hear on the supernatural. The book seems very concerned with ghosts in one way or another. This book, in that way, feels like you’re sort of cultivating a space for this absent person. I’m wondering if that is something you’ve been trying to do with your poems as well.

JS: Yeah, I like that idea. I also think there’s something there, for an absent person, but also for a person who didn’t have the English language. You know, she and I didn’t really talk all that much. Her English was really limited, so our bond was even more based on this psychic connection, this spiritual connection. So I think it’s also for someone who I didn’t really know. I was trying to understand her maybe through writing the poems. I also think that the poems, honestly, are a political act. I mean, I’m Iranian and Mexican, and a woman, and so I think that part of it was a form of protest in a way, saying that this history, my history, matters.

TL: Yeah, the book opens and closes with direct speech, and each instance feels like a way of speaking so much of that into the world.

And part of what affected me with this book too is, well, I just lost my grandfather in December, so I’m still learning how to cultivate that space. There’s that next-to-last section in “Origin,” this line: “She’ll come back for the nest.” The raw quartz. There’s this sense of desperation in trying to get the dead back, which you’re pointing to in that relationship, something deeply connective here beyond language. I know that’s not exactly a question. I’m just trying to show my appreciation.

JS: Oh, well, thank you, and I’m sorry for your loss.

TL: Thank you.

But like I said, this book begins and ends with direct speech, and I won’t spoil the ending but I can’t imagine it ending any other way. So what, can I ask, is your personal relationship to languages, either in the practical daily way of speaking them or in relation to poetry, as far as the strange avoidance of sense poetry has?

JS: Well, I know bad words in Farsi, and I know numbers, and I know parts of my face. But that’s all. So then there’s that breakdown. I think the irony is in that section that you point out about me trying to lure my grandmother back, with shiny objects, with jewels or with crystal or whatever, because she really liked jewelry. This is maybe off topic, but I was told I was a healer, and the one message I get across the board is, “You don’t own it, you don’t believe that you are, and you have to just embody it and own it.” And so I think that anxiety of, “Did I really inherit her gift? Are all these things flickering around me and all these weird things happening because I’m like her?”—I’m trying to use language to communicate with her, and, ironically, we don’t speak the same language. So, I’m looking for this reassurance, even just in daily life, that I’m doing what I should be doing.

But the way I work mostly when I’m writing a poem, it’s very much like I’m taking notes. I don’t write every day or anything, and then it all just comes out. I think it’s maybe a spoiled way of writing, but I’ve just accepted that that’s how I work. So a lot of times the language is just dictated by whatever comes out as I’m listening.

TL: It sounds like you’re just taking what you’re given, which sort of relates too to that sense of, when you can see what’s coming what do you do with that. There’s that one moment, the last section of “Origin” about the tire, just listening to what you’re given too. So, how do you relate to being able to see. . . farther? It seems like that’s sort of conflated with seeing the truth, and it seems to exist between things.

JS: Well, that tire thing was one of the only times it really happened to me. That was really freaky; I mostly set electronics off. I’ve had my rear view mirrors on both sides combust and blow off my car; both times I was upset. It’s like telekinesis-type stuff, like Carrie. And that middle part, “Origin,” was actually an essay that was published in Los Angeles Review, and I parsed it out. I was so tired of people not believing, I was like, “I’m just going to write down everything that’s ever happened to me and that I’ve witnessed, and this will be how to believe in magic.” So those things, they don’t scare me.

The other day, I was in the living room with my husband and we were watching TV, and I was writing a poem and wanted to put an angel in it, so I was like, “Raphael’s an angel, right,” and he said, “What? No! That’s like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.” So I Googled it and was like, “No, here he is, he’s an angel.” So we had the TV on the news, the channel we always watch, and I’ve never seen this weather person before, and they go, “Alright, thank you, Raphael,” and I was like, “Mmmhmm.” I feel like things like that happen and it’s always the universe or the angels or whoever—it doesn’t scare me; it just makes me feel like that happened to give me reassurance.

TL: People will talk about the power of language and whatever, but it sounds like your relationship with the power of language is quite literal.

JS: Yeah. This woman came, she reads people’s auras, and she had these silver plates. You put your hands on them—they have little handprints on them—and then she takes a Polaroid, and around you are all these colors, and she’s able to kind of discern what’s going on. She looked at me and said, “Wow, you talk to your angels, don’t you?” And I was like, “What, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” And she says, “Well you always read the ticker across the screen, and you look for words. And you look at license tags and you look for words there,” and I didn’t realize that I do that, but I do. So I think I’m constantly communicating with something bigger than me in these strange ways.

TL: I’m thinking too about—there’s so much in this book about the possibilities of language, either in terms of the supernatural, or there’s the one poem, “Lucy Let People See,” where you and the taxi driver are talking about people who were strangers to either of you, but the way in which you related to them, respectively, brings you two closer. What do you think are the possibilities of speech in terms of grief? In terms of processing it, or how you relate to the world, or to that missing person now?

JS: To be honest, Tim, something that’s on my mind, with Weinstein—this last section of the last poem, and there’s another poem about the guy and the plaster, “Lifecasting”—there’s this way of working through assault and abuse, which is partly grief for me, and working through silence. It’s strange. I hadn’t really sat down to read the book completely since it came out, but those parts were super-raw when I was re-reading it before you called. So I feel like there are certain things that one can do, that I certainly do, in poetry that I can’t be public about, that I can’t quite articulate yet.

I saw that you’re in recovery, and congratulations for that. I’m in recovery for disordered eating. When I think about all the forgiveness that you have to do in recovery, and I think about all the things that you have to confront in order to get well, or recover, it’s the things that I thought I had forgiven, things that I thought I had released or was able to let go of that are the very things that are why I’m kind of in relapse right now. I guess I just wanted to say that because I’m feeling a lot of grief in that way, grief for those who have been assaulted and abused.

In the book, there’s grief for my grandmother and the conversations we couldn’t have because of language. It’s more of that than a grieving of her. I have this really strange thing with death; I don’t really process it; I don’t really feel much. It’s a different kind of sadness. I think a sadness of also not really knowing her.

TL: A lot of this book too is reclaiming, or plainly claiming, the self. That idea of thinking you’ve processed, and thinking you’ve gotten through all of this, then realizing that it’s still there. That’s a really big thing for recovery that I’m still finding out too. And I’ve been in my own situations where my body too has been made to feel estranged from myself, and in that way, yeah, you think you process everything, and then somebody says or does something or you uncover something in your own language that tips you off to realize that it’s still there. Not to say that it’s something abysmal or hopeless or anything, just that all of this is true and real, which like you said, is part of the book too, saying what no one would normally believe is real.

JS: Absolutely. It always surprises me—I think it’s a lot of ego involved—when something rattles me, even though I feel like I’m really self-aware. Like writers, especially poets maybe, are super-self-aware. I mean, that’s our job. So, for something to unearth, for me to be so floored by something—I don’t know. “Markers,” ends with “First no.” It’s my way of writing around abuse and assault because I can’t hit it head-on yet. So much of it for me was suppressed and it was just all there suddenly. Like, “What? Where did this come from?” And you see how all these aggressions against your body accumulate over the years and the effect they have on you.

TL: Exactly, it’s just suppressed. You don’t know what’s there. And in that way I guess it’s sort of reading your own past too.

JS: Yeah.

TL: Yeah.

Is there anything you want to add that we didn’t get to talk about?

JS: No, I’m just very honored that you asked, and I’m grateful that you read the book and did such a close reading.

TL: Oh, well, thank you for writing it. And thank you for being so open. This has been really enjoyable and insightful just as a plain conversation too.

JS: Likewise.


Tim Lynch has poems forthcoming or published with Yes, Poetry, Occulum, tenderness, yea, Connotation Press, and more. He has directed various workshops for young writers through Rutgers University in Camden, NJ & conducts interviews for Tell Tell Poetry. He would be delighted to meet you on Twitter & Instagram @timlynchthatsit.